Kings may have a better chance but Coyotes tug at heart-strings

 

 
 
 
 
The Phoenix Coyotes have somehow arrived at the third stage of the Stanley Cup playoffs with a squad constructed largely from hockey's discard pile: underachieving first-rounders, highly motivated second- and third-chancers, fourth-liners on a mission, and a coach who was inexplicably available -- and even more inexplicably, willing -- to take on what looked, three years ago, every inch a lost cause in the desert.
 

The Phoenix Coyotes have somehow arrived at the third stage of the Stanley Cup playoffs with a squad constructed largely from hockey's discard pile: underachieving first-rounders, highly motivated second- and third-chancers, fourth-liners on a mission, and a coach who was inexplicably available -- and even more inexplicably, willing -- to take on what looked, three years ago, every inch a lost cause in the desert.

Photograph by: Norm Hall, NHLI via Getty Images

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Glendale, Ariz. — The Los Angeles Kings probably have the better chance, but with all due respect Darryl Sutter and the team from Staples, it's the team from carpenter's glue and duct tape that tugs at the heart-strings in this Western Conference final.

The Phoenix Coyotes have somehow arrived at the third stage of the Stanley Cup playoffs with a squad constructed largely from hockey's discard pile: underachieving first-rounders, highly motivated second- and third-chancers, fourth-liners on a mission, and a coach who was inexplicably available -- and even more inexplicably, willing -- to take on what looked, three years ago, every inch a lost cause in the desert.

"I have to give him credit. Looking at our situation, I'm not sure I would have come into this mess at the time," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said Saturday, sitting next to his coach, Dave Tippett, at a news conference in advance of today's 5 p.m. conference final at Jobing.com Arena

"I think he looked at it and saw that this is the chance to build something from the ground up. Fortunately we've been relatively successful to date."

The team has only five playoff regulars whom they drafted, and one of them, Shane Doan, was by Winnipeg ... 17 years ago. The other 14 were acquired through trades, waivers or free agency -- and it goes without saying, the 'Yotes, tightly budgeted by the league, weren't exactly able to engage in bidding wars to get the free agents.

But they have 12 first-round picks -- eight of them somebody else's -- in the lineup, or would have if Raffi Torres weren't serving a 25-game suspension, which tells you something about Tippett and patience, and salvation.

"I think you hit the nail on the head," said Maloney. "Gilbert Brule was a top-five, top-six pick. At the time he was picked, he was expected to be a 30- to 40-goal scorer in the league. By the time he gets to us four, five, six years later, he's figured out that, you know what, I can be a good player. But maybe it's in a role, coming off the bench, providing some secondary offense.

"Kyle Chipchura, a very important player for us. Brings a lot of energy to our game. I think it's a little bit by necessity here. We've had to really search for the right players that fit into our system. Taylor Pyatt is a prime example. Taylor Pyatt, you know, for a number of years in Vancouver was a very good player. Had some personal tragedy in his life, was able to re-find his game here. He's an important player, and will be in this series. A big, strong, power player for us.

"It's like anything, we have X-amount to work with. We do the best with what the league has been able to provide us. Fortunately we've been able to come up with some nice stories."

The Kings have four players -- Dustin Penner (Anaheim), Justin Williams (Carolina), Rob Scuderi (Pittsburgh) and Colin Fraser (Chicago) -- who have Stanley Cup rings and four others -- Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene (Edmonton), Mike Richards and Jeff Carter (Philadelphia) -- who have been to the Cup final and lost.

The only ring in the Phoenix room belongs to Ray Whitney (Carolina), who turned 40 on Tuesday, and only Daymond Langkow (Calgary) and Antoine Vermette (Ottawa) have been to the final and lost. (Again, Torres, who's veen on the losing side twice in Edmonton and Vancouver, doesn't count).

But Tippett, fired by Dallas when Joe Nieuwendyk took over as GM in 2009, is a big believer in structure and responsibility, who's won everywhere he's been, and he knows that among all those first-rounders, even if some were failures in their original roles, he had some pieces to work with. And work, and work.

"Talking to young Brule this morning after practice, he's got a big smile on his face, he said, 'This is the most fun I've had in hockey in my whole life.' It's probably the least role he's played on a team, but he's having more fun," said Tippett.

"The expectations of some of those guys were probably higher than they were able to produce at the time. Once they get to us, expectations have come down a little bit. We try to really create a team atmosphere where everybody has to chip in. Sometimes players like that, they feel like they had to do way more than everybody else. Here they just have to do the same."

Getting Tippett, who followed on the heels of Wayne Gretzky's reluctant coaching experiment, was clearly the turning point, though some of the talent Gretzky suffered with as coach has now matured.

"I had a conversation with Wayne Gretzky late May (of 2010). At that point I didn't think he'd come back, regardless, as the coach," said Maloney. "He never said it [but] in our initial conversation, he asked me, 'If I didn't, do you have a guy? Because I've got a guy.' We both had the same guy. He's sitting to my left. He had just been let go from Dallas.

"He knew the division, he knew the conference, he had great success in Dallas, he's won everywhere. It was a great fit.

"Really, of all the years since the bankruptcy, the only little push-back I had with the NHL at the time when I was signing him was a little bit on the term of the contract. They wanted a short-term deal. I said a short-term deal isn't going to work here. It was just one short conversation."

Maloney got the term, Tippett came, and the rest is history ... or might be yet.

It would make a heck of a fairytale.

ccole@vancouversun.com

 
 
 
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The Phoenix Coyotes have somehow arrived at the third stage of the Stanley Cup playoffs with a squad constructed largely from hockey's discard pile: underachieving first-rounders, highly motivated second- and third-chancers, fourth-liners on a mission, and a coach who was inexplicably available -- and even more inexplicably, willing -- to take on what looked, three years ago, every inch a lost cause in the desert.
 

The Phoenix Coyotes have somehow arrived at the third stage of the Stanley Cup playoffs with a squad constructed largely from hockey's discard pile: underachieving first-rounders, highly motivated second- and third-chancers, fourth-liners on a mission, and a coach who was inexplicably available -- and even more inexplicably, willing -- to take on what looked, three years ago, every inch a lost cause in the desert.

Photograph by: Norm Hall, NHLI via Getty Images

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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